The first time Glynis Rhodes underwent chemotherapy was in 2007, while battling breast cancer. Her hair fell out and never grew back. While her cancer diagnosis was frightening and the treatments debilitating, losing her hair was emotionally jarring to the West Philly resident.
“People constantly say, ‘You look so pretty without hair, so it’s OK," said Rhodes, 57, “but it really is not. I know it could be worse, but if it’s not your choice to be bald, it’s not a good thing. I’m still a woman who wants to brush her hair.”
For many years, Rhodes tried wearing wigs, but never found them to be comfortable. She’d don one in winter to keep her head warm, but in the heat of the summer, she often went bald.
All of that changed for Rhodes when she found Lois Arnold, CEO of Hairs 2 U Wig Bank in Queen Village. The women met at now-closed Hahnemann Hospital in 2016, when Rhodes, who had then been diagnosed with uterine cancer, was attending a support group for cancer patients.
“When I told Lois that I don’t like being bald, she didn’t say, ‘But it looks nice anyway,’” said Rhodes. “She was one of the first people who took my feelings into consideration. She never once diminished how I felt — she just built me up.”
Compassionate consideration is Arnold’s superpower, say those who know her.
“She’s really thoughtful about giving someone an appointment before or after normal hours, for privacy — she’ll help keep things discreet,” said Jennifer Egg, an oncology social worker at the Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital. “She’s hands-on with everything — that’s unique. She’ll trim wigs to fit because, when they’re made, they have a lot of extra hair in them. They’re supposed to be ‘one size fits all,’ but they don’t fit all.”
A beautician for half a century, Arnold, 68, worked in area shops until 1998 when she opened her own place, Itno-J salon, in West Philadelphia. She closed it in 2009 and moved across town to open the Lois A. Wig Boutique on South 4th Street in the heart of Fabric Row.
In 2016, she converted the business to Hairs 2 U, a nonprofit wig bank, in honor of her Aunt Veda, who was diagnosed with cancer in 1987.
“Aunt Veda went through chemo, and at that time she didn’t know she was going to lose her hair. When I shampooed her, all her hair came out, just from the hose. That evening, she was embarrassed to walk out the door. That’s when I learned about dignity,” recalled Arnold.
The next morning, Arnold took her aunt to three wig stores and found the salespeople cold and insensitive. Finally, at the now-defunct Bonwit Teller department store, they bought two different wigs that were not perfect on their own, but that Aunt Veda, a tailor, was able to sew into a single work of art. “My aunt made her first wig,” Arnold said, proudly.
Most of the women who visit Arnold’s shop are bald due to chemotherapy, alopecia, or lupus. She helps them try on wigs that are similar to their own hair color and style — and also ones that are completely different, should they feel like reinventing themselves.
“She makes me new every time,” client Rhodes said of Arnold. “I come in here one way and go out somebody else.”
Hairs 2 U’s colorful storefront window sports mannequins wearing wigs in all colors of the rainbow; inside, more than 100 more mannequins of every skin shade display wigs in an array of styles. The store sells only new wigs, which average between $160 to $340 each, though some (on sale) run as low as $10, and others as high as $2,200. The cost is based on the quality of the wig and whether it’s made of synthetic or human hair. Hats and other head coverings are also available for sale.
Along with a new wig comes education, which Arnold doles out patiently.
“We make sure people know how to put the wig on properly, secure it, shampoo it, store it, and style it,” said Arnold.
She created how-to videos on YouTube to help users discern the differences in wig applications. While chemotherapy and alopecia both cause baldness, for example, chemo patients need to protect the hair that will grow back, so they can’t use tapes or other adhesives to secure their wigs the way they could if they were permanently bald.
For now, Arnold is the sole paid employee of Hairs 2 U, but she has devoted volunteers who help run the nonprofit, which often provides wigs free of charge to un- and underinsured clients. Arnold won’t share sales figures, but said that changes in tax deductions for donations took a toll on the shop last year, as did changes in grant funding — an important component in her bottom line — that caused the nonprofit to lose $15,000. For now, the shop’s sale of vintage clothing and jewelry is helping Hairs 2 U stay afloat.
Customer Glynis Rhodes is so pleased with the support she’s received from Arnold and her staff, she now volunteers her time at the shop.
“I know how it feels when you’re not able to do your hair as you used to,” said Rhodes, who in September resumed chemotherapy when medical tests indicated that her cancer may be recurring. "And I know how nice it feels when somebody comes in to help make you look pretty all over again.”
Rhodes’ praise means the world to Arnold.
“The gratification is priceless,” Arnold said. “It means I help my Aunt Veda all over again.”